“Boasting in Hope” – Sermon for May 22, 2016

Categories: Sermons

“Spirit of Truth”, relief sculpture by Mary S. Watts Watts Chapel, Compton UK

“Spirit of Truth”, relief sculpture by Mary S. Watts, Watts Chapel, Compton UK

“Boasting in Hope”

A Sermon on John 16:12-15 (with Romans 5:1-5) for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year C; preached May 22, 2016, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister

 

Now, myself, as someone who grew up an intellectually and academically precocious child, I never much appreciated such age-based condescensions as “you’ll understand when you get older.”  I suppose, really, no one does, do they?  You don’t have to be Dougie Houser to feel resentful about such things.  And yet, even so—my own protestations notwithstanding—I will admit that, now as an adult, I myself have said something like that a time or two.

More to the point, though, as my own life journeys onward, I realize that, indeed, even for me, there are things I’ve come to understand as I’ve gotten older.  Things that I look back on and recognize that I’d be in a different and better place now to receive the fullness of, than I was five or ten or fifteen years ago.  There are plenty of life-experience sorts of things like this… perhaps you can imagine your own:  relationships and their ups and downs, endings and beginnings; struggles and trauma you’ve been through; gifts and graces from others you weren’t able to fully receive then, but can see more deeply into now.  Sometimes, though, it’s even something as simple as a book… I’ll find myself cracking open something I’d read back in seminary—it was, after all, ten years ago this very week that I graduated—and it will hit me now much better I understand what’s there… or how much more meaningful it would be for me if I were to delve back into that book now, compared to how I was able to receive it when my eyes first scanned those very same words how many ever years ago.

With these sorts of realizations, it’s not altogether unreasonable to me, then, that Jesus would tell his disciples that he still had many things to say to them, but that “[they] cannot bear them now.”  After all, let’s remember where and when these disciples find themselves when Jesus says this to them.  Here in John 16, we are dropping into the story on the very last night.  It’s that infamous night when Jesus gets arrested, that night when he’s gathered with his closest followers for one last meal and time together, on the night before he would be tried and crucified.

Things are a whirlwind for those disciples at this point, I’m sure.  They’ve followed him all along the way, and now into Jerusalem where an ominous mood casts shadow all across the horizons of their hearts.  At this last meal gathering—in the way John’s gospel tells it, anyhow—Jesus has by this point flabbergasted them all by washing their feet, taking on the role of a slave or servant to them.  He’s also foretold his betrayal, and Peter’s denial, too.  And then he’s begun schooling them on how they are to be together after he’s gone—that “new commandment” that they love one another as he has loved them.  Jesus, this Jesus, he’s even told them that they’re going to face nothing short of outright hatred,[1] and even death,[2] all because of him.

Can you imagine?  Can you fathom what those disciples were thinking, feeling, praying, by this point?

And yet there is more to come… we who know the story in hindsight, we know this.  Jesus, this Jesus, he’s going to be arrested, tried, tortured, crucified, killed, and buried.  He’s going to rise again, appear to them, and depart from them.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  Between what has already been said, and what is about to happen… indeed, too much to bear.

§

We ourselves run up against limits to what we can bear, what we can understand,w hat we can begin to fathom as possible in this world.  Like the foreboding sense of urgency that those disciples undoubtedly felt as they sat, with their freshly-washed feet, listening to Jesus give his farewell words… we, too, often feel like life—whether our life specifically, or life in general—that it’s “urgently moving toward… something.”[3]  And that “something”—occasionally it’s good, but more often what gnaws at us is that grave sense that what we’re urgently moving toward is not where we’d like to be.  Is the world edging toward the brink?—whether due to a broken economic system, or the threat of terrorists, or the possible political outcomes in our own land…?  For that matter, can we hold it all together in our own lives, between mortgage payments and retirement savings, college costs and medical care bills, keeping “good-enough grades to be accepted into good-enough programs in good-enough schools”[4]…?

Under the pressure of the moment that the disciples faced, they could not bear all Jesus could have said to them.  Can we?  Or ware we balancing and bearing enough, even too much, as it is?

§

The writer and poet Wendell Berry, in his poem “The Real Work”, writes:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
[5]

On one hand, I think that the poet here is right, and it seems an especially keen insight—that the “mind that is not baffled is not employed”—today as we observe Trinity Sunday.  But on the other hand, and more to the point, the good news is that God does not leave us on our own to do such work.  When we reach that place where we cannot bear to hear any more, because we are already balancing and bearing too much, that is where God reassures us of the power that comes to our aid from outside ourselves, and from inside the very heart and being of God—the power of the Holy Spirit.

Notice, after all, that when Jesus says to the disciples that he has more to say, but they cannot bear it, Jesus does not berate them.  He does not say “you fools!  Why can’t you seem to get it together?!”  In fact, quite the opposite—“you can’t bear it now?  It’s o.k., because the Spirt still will come, still does come, to guide you into all truth.”  Here on Trinity Sunday, we celebrate the fact that what the Spirit testifies to and empowers us for is in unity with Jesus himself.  As one New Testament scholar puts it, “The Holy Spirit communicates [the] presence [of God among humans] to us today by reminding us of what Jesus said and then by teaching us what God has to say now.”[6]  That would seem to be what Jesus is getting at, when he assures the disciples that what this Spirit they will receive will do is declare to them all that was already Jesus’, and all that God has is in Jesus’ grasp, too.

§

I could very quickly wander off here into territory that’s rather esoteric and heady and convoluted.  Such is the danger for a preacher on a day like Trinity Sunday, the only day on the church calendar devoted to a theological doctrine rather than some part of the story of Christ and the church.  For that matter, such is also often the danger whenever we’re given scriptures from Paul’s letter to the Romans, or from John’s gospel.

But like the poet Wendell Berry, might we affirm that it can be right at that place where all seems too much to bear… where our attempts to make sense of it all start turning arcane and obtuse, that it is there where the real work happens—both on our part, and on God’s?  Safwat Marzouk, an Egyptian Protestant Christian pastor and biblical scholar, writing for the Christian Century this week, he writes, “As we acknowledge our limitations to perceive the truth[,]”—hear that again, “As we acknowledge our limitations to perceive the truth”—“we leave room for the Spirit to teach us and to form us as disciples of Christ.”[7]  Or as Karoline Lewis, a Lutheran pastor and biblical scholar up in the Twin Cities, put it, “Inherent to being church is an ongoing endeavoring toward naming God’s activity in our world.”[8]

In other words, when we think we’ve got it all figured out, then that’s precisely where we’ve probably stepped out of it… left the living and active life of God… the grace-filled and life-giving life with God to which we are called and for which we have been claimed.  But that, you see, is the glorious good news of God in all times and places—that it doesn’t depend on us… that our hope of sharing in the glory of God is not ultimately our work to achieve, but God’s work—God’s ongoing work—for us to receive.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever.  Amen.

 


[1] John 15:18-19, NRSV.

[2] John 16:2, NRSV.

[3] Brian Wilker Frey, “From a Preacher” commentary for May 22, 2016; in Sundays and Seasons: Preaching, ed. Robert Farlee, 2016, Year C (Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 2015), 176.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wendell Berry, “The Real Work,” in Standing by Words:  Essays (Berkeley, CA:  Counterpoint, 1983).

[6] Lamar Williamson Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John:  Proclaiming the Living Word (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 212-13.

[7] Safwat Marzouk, “The Truth of the Triune God,” Sunday’s Coming (blog), ChristianCentury.org, 20 May 2016, http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2016-05/truth-triune-god

[8] Karoline Lewis, “Trinity Talk,” Dear Working Preacher (blog), WorkingPreacher.org, 15 May 2016, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4648. Emphasis added.

 

 

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